Tony Shalhoub loves a good dramedy. The actor, best known for playing neurotic detective Adrian Monk (picture Woody Allen as Columbo and you're half way there) says the TV show combines his two loves: drama and comedy.
"I feel it's sort of limiting to think of myself as a comedic actor," says Shalhoub in a phone call from Los Angeles. "I kind of like to embody characters that allow me to do both."
It's fitting that "Made-Up," Shalhoub's film directorial debut, is seasoned with the two elements - a potent mix of cinnamon and nutmeg. The low-budget indie film, which is being rolled out in very limited release, is about Elizabeth, a former actress, whose sister Kate cajoles her to undergo a makeover so that she can shoot a documentary about it. With her graying hair hidden by a wig, a girdle, and makeup to hide the elastic that gives her face a taut appearance, Elizabeth looks as if she's just emerged from Joan Rivers's favorite Beverly Hills clinic.
That's when the fun begins: Elizabeth revels in the effect that her rejuvenated appearance has on both her former husband and Max, a restaurant owner (played by Shalhoub), even as she struggles with the ethics of her vanity project.
The film, which begins a regular run in Boston and Worcester, Mass., today, stars the actor's wife, Brooke Adams, as Elizabeth. The screenplay was adapted from a one-woman play written by Adams's sister, Lynne, who plays Kate in the movie.
"Made-Up" was inspired by experiences in the writer's life. Lynne Adams had dyed her preternaturally graying hair during her years as a TV soap star. Later, when she went into semiretirement in upstate New York, she let her hair go gray but was perturbed at how people who knew her reacted to her unvarnished look.
"She tried an experiment once where she would go into a place and then go home and put on a dark wig and some lighter makeup and go back to the same place," says Shalhoub. She found that people treated her differently. "The way they dealt with her, their demeanor, the general warmth was incredible."
Familial support ensured that Shalhoub felt protected as a first-timer director, but he found it difficult to both act and direct, something he won't do again.
"When I was in a scene, Brooke would direct me because I found I couldn't direct myself - I was just impossible to work with," he quips.
Shalhoub's comedic talents in "Monk" recently garnered him this year's Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Male Actor in a Comedy Series. Last year, he was visibly caught off-guard when he won a Golden Globe and, later, an Emmy for the series, which is now the highest-rated show on basic cable. Even with all the attention, he doesn't think of himself as a celebrity.
"We live a pretty sedate, modest kind of existence out here - for Hollywood, I mean. We're not out at the Chateau Marmont 'til 2 in the morning. I'm trying to fix the stopped-up sink upstairs or clean up after the dog," he says.
Still, movies such as "Big Night," "Galaxy Quest," and "The Man Who Wasn't There" have given the Lebanese-American sufficient status to tackle a subject his 1998 movie, "The Siege," touched on: The treatment of Arab-Americans during a period of domestic terrorism.
"That's sort of my next project - illustrating the experiences this community has had since 9/11," he says. "I've been starting to work with directors and writers and actors in the Arab-American community here in Hollywood. It's the forgotten minority in this country."
Despite his heritage, Shalhoub has made a living playing Italians ever since his breakout role in TV's "Wings." That's true of his next role as a mobster in "The Last Shot," which also stars Matthew Broderick and Alec Baldwin. Shalhoub says he relished the film's black humor.
"Certain kinds of comedy go in and out of fashion," he says. "I sort of aspire to be working in a parallel universe to whatever happens to be fashionable at the time."